LaTeX is a markup language, meaning that everything in a document is about what it is rather than how it looks like. The final formatting is done by a program (e.g. pdflatex) that translates your input source files to an output file (e.g. a PDF file).
This relieves you from having to worry about the looks of your document before you even have the content done. A similar workflow is possible in programs like Microsoft Word, when you define a style sheet and e.g. format headings as
h1 rather as "bold, 15pt, sans-serif", but to me this happens much more natural in markup languages like LaTeX.
When I started to learn LaTeX I learned pretty much everything to get me started from this guide.
One can do actual programming in the TeX (the underlying language in LaTeX) and there are other possibilities like Lua, but you do not need this to write documents.
LaTeX can be written in any text editor (probably what you saw before), but there are also specialized editors (environments) available that make this very easy for new users:
- Lyx, TeXnicCenter: show you immediately how your document will look
- AUCTeX: extremely productive (La)TeX plugin for
emacs (in fact the only reason for me to use emacs these days), with
preview you even get a look at how your figures and equations will look like inside
- VIM-LaTeX: LaTeX-plugin for
vim, good for quick stuff
The plus points of LaTeX in comparison to using e.g. Microsoft Word for me are:
- you stay focused on your content
- making professional looking documents extremely easy, e.g. numbering of figures, references, extremely good support for math markup
- your university might already provide a LaTeX class/style that makes everything look like required
- LaTeX has very loose limits on how big your document can be, and it doesn't crash like Word seems to when your document gets very big